When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools abruptly last March, Kelly Addessi admits that the fast-unfolding remote learning environment was an adjustment for her son, Evan. At the time Evan was a fourth-grader at Summit Academy Community School for Alternative Learners — Canton Elementary. There, he thrived in an engaging environment, learning alongside classmates as well as receiving individualized education at the school.
“Evan is a social butterfly and truly missed being with his teachers and classmates,” says Addessi, who works at the school as an administrative assistant. She says classes conducted in Zoom helped fill some of the voids of typical classroom time during those early pandemic months.
“It was a great opportunity for Evan to see his teachers and classmates. He still felt heard and his teachers were able to address his concerns,” Addessi says.
Consistency also was key to Evan’s success in last spring’s remote learning environment, she says. Addessi advises fellow parents of special education students to maintain a routine and, if possible, to keep siblings on a similar school schedule.
“We used iPad alarm to help keep Evan on track for how long or when he should be working on things,” Addessi says.
Erica Richley-Duda, executive director of special education for Summit Academy Schools, applauds Addessi for maintaining structure in school days spent at home during the pandemic. It’s one of seven tips she and her colleagues offer to parents and teachers for success in remote special education.
Tips for Parents
1. Maintain a schedule
“Predictability and consistency are keys to success,” says Richley-Duda, pointing out that special education students flourish in settings that offer certainty and assurance.
“Children want to have a schedule, a sense of what is going on,” adds Em Ellis, behavior specialist for Summit Academy Community School — Dayton. She advises parents to give their children early notice before transitioning from one activity to the next. Ellis also suggests that parents and children create to-do lists, jot assignments on sticky notes, and use visual timers so youngsters can anticipate the flow of a virtual school day.
2. Engage in children’s learning
“We love when parents ask questions,” says Richley-Duda, who acknowledges that at-home learning may require more parental involvement than usual. She says parents should not hesitate to reach out to teachers for advice on how, for instance, they can help their children get the most out of a one-on-one session with the speech therapist or another specialist.
“The virtual setting will present unique challenges, yet those can be successfully met when parents and educators come together as a team. Open communication is so important,” Richley-Duda says.
3. Designate a quiet space for remote instruction
“Making sure your child has a space to go for instruction will set them up for success,” Richley-Duda says.
Ideally, reserve a comfortable space for students, one that is that quiet and low-traffic in nature, she says.
Set up a space that is clutter-free yet includes everything children need to work at the start of class, suggests Ellis.
“Create a clean workspace with only what you need sitting out,” she says. Ellis suggests including items such as a charging cord, coping strategy tools and water.
If carving out a small nook is not possible, Summit Academy School — Lorain Principal Mike Williston is offering students an option. One of the first projects they will work on at the start of the school year is to create their own avatar or find a picture of something that represents them, which they can display online during live class sessions. Williston says the option allows students to turn off their Chromebook cameras while remaining engaged in and actively listening during lessons.
“We should not penalize students if they’re not on camera because they may not like how they look, or their surroundings, or if a parent is out and about,” says Williston. The avatar or other image, Williston expects, will help eliminate factors that may otherwise interfere with learning. “We have to be respectful of kids and their families and the difficulties they may face.”
4. Create a morning checklist
Help your child get back into a school routine with a task list. Ellis says a list that includes pictures will be engaging and appealing to autistic pupils.
“Other students, such as those with ADHD, may benefit from having the time noted alongside each task or an alarm set to go off to indicate when to go to the next task,” says Ellis, who has created a checklist template for her students and families to use.
5. Take one task at a time.
“School can be overwhelming and frustrating at times,” Richley-Duda says. “Encourage your child to ask questions and to simply try their best.”
Summit Academy Community School for Alternative Learners — Lorain Elementary Principal Keegan Schoen says his school staff will reach out to students individually online at the start of virtual school days to help them check in on time for classes and ease into the day.
“By setting a schedule, a routine with some flexibility, and regularly helping students we want school to feel as normal as possible to kids,” Schoen says.
Tips for teachers
1. Recognize learning gaps and work diligently to close them
“There are many online resources that are engaging to enhance lessons and make them fun for our students,” says Rob Housel, principal for Summit Academy Community School for Alternative Learners — Canton Elementary. As an example, Housel says some of his school teachers are using a new resource called Freckle, which differentiates instruction in mathematics, English and language arts, and science to reach students at their individual levels.
Housel adds that he is encouraging teachers to incorporate “fun” into remote learning to help keep students engaged as must as possible. “Best advice is to relax and have fun,” he says.
2. Give grace to get grace
“Have frequent, open, and honest parent communication and collaboration,” recommends Meghann Fuhrer, regional director of special education for Summit Academy’s northern region. She encourages them to support families by proactively keeping them engaged in and updated on the nuances of the remote learning process.
3. Meet students where they are
“Recognize that what works for one student may not work for another student,” Caitlin Keener, regional director of special education for Summit Academy’s southern region, reminds teachers.
Keener says, for example, high anxiety may prevent a student from joining a Google Meet.
“Rather than punishing them for not doing it the way you originally intended, meet them where they are and find a way that you are able to connect with them,” she says.